The scandal du jour

Posted: Oct 03, 2003 12:00 AM

Maybe I'm just getting jaded, but this latest Washington "scandal" regarding the leak strikes me as cynicism squared. It reminds me of Nora Ephron's bon mot: "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up."

Here's the version that has been broadcast and printed far and wide in the last week: Angry that a CIA-commissioned trip by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV had concluded that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, someone in the White House leaked to Robert Novak the information that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. In so doing, the leaker ran afoul of the law forbidding the public release of the names of CIA employees.

I have never before heard liberal members of the press wondering aloud (and not without some relish) whether a fellow journalist might have committed a crime in publishing classified information. The usual response is to give them prizes and banquets. The Democratic presidential candidates have seized the opportunity to condemn this supposed leak and thus style themselves defenders of the CIA -- which is rich coming from the party that has been emasculating the CIA for 30 years (apparently with good success).

The White House press corps, meanwhile, has switched into its favorite gear -- scandal drive. Will Karl Rove take a lie detector test? Will the White House letters, emails and phone logs be turned over to the Justice Department? Will the president request the appointment of a special counsel? Blah, blah, blah.

The Republicans, too, have rushed to their partisan battlements, urging with all their might that the Justice Department is fully capable of undertaking a probe of the White House -- though they had argued just the opposite during the Clinton years. It's hard to say which is less attractive, lockstep partisanship or preening independence such as that shown by one Republican senator, Chuck Hagel. He has jumped in to suggest that the charges here are "serious."

Hagel's position would be fine if it were true. But it isn't. This is a completely manufactured scandal. The Democrats are hot for it because they believe they can use it to get Karl Rove. In their view, Rove is the genius behind the scenes, pulling President Bush's strings. Without Rove, they imagine, Bush will collapse like a punctured balloon -- just in time for the 2004 race.

Wilson, who by the way is a left-leaning Democrat, has alleged that Rove is the leaker. But he has offered no proof of this whatsoever. Nor has anyone else. In fact, Novak specifically denies in his column that anyone in the White House leaked to him. It's an amazing thing to watch the capital of the free world buzzing about a "fact" that is not a fact, based only on the conjecture of a clear partisan.

Beyond that, there is the mystery of the leaker's motive. Why would the White House suppose that mentioning Wilson's wife's employer would in any way discredit him? Republicans tend to believe that working for the CIA is a credit to a person, not a disqualifier. If the accusers are making the darker allegation that Rove or whoever actually wanted to put Mrs. Wilson in physical danger, well that's a bit hard to swallow. Mrs. Wilson apparently toiled at CIA headquarters, not out in the field. More to the point, the Bush administration doesn't strike me as the Russian mafia.

Leave it to Washington to erupt over a trifle when a serious matter -- the possible incompetence of our intelligence services -- cries out for attention. It does now appear that we were mistaken in believing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction primed and ready for use. The Democrats are trying to say that Bush lied, which is absurd. President Clinton made the identical arguments about Iraq.

Both relied, as did we all, on what our intelligence services (and other nations') were reporting. If they were wrong about this, they may be in need of a complete overhaul.